Tampa: Impressions of an Emigrant by Wenceslao Gálvez y Delmonte

An excerpt from 83 Degrees.

Wenceslao Gálvez y Delmonte (1867–1951) was a Cuban-born baseball player, lawyer, and writer. In 1896, Gálvez fled the violence of Cuba’s war for independence and settled in Tampa. He soon made his new home the focus of a work of costumbrismo, the Spanish-language genre built on closely observing the everyday manners and customs of a place. This excerpt is taken from Gálvez’s narrative and is translated into English by Noel M. Smith deputy director and curator of Latin American & Caribbean Art at the USF Contemporary Art Museum. 

The Tampa Bay Hotel

The Patio — The Décor — The Guests

Not far from the city, between it and the port, rises the majestic Tampa Bay Hotel, or the beautiful hotel of Tampa, as translated by those fond of onomatopoeias. Mr. Plant reached into his very fat wallet for the hotel, and while it can’t compete in elegance and luxury with the first ranked in the world, it has nothing to envy those in its class. The land in itself is notable; its architecture is very special and of doubtful taste; its garden is immense and the train runs through its center; its electric plant, pool, and kitchen are in separate buildings, giving a noble air to this mansion. The hotel is the pride of Tampa. … 

… I’m not going to describe the furniture, fabrics, rugs, cushions, and other things in the hotel, nor count all the colorful electric light bulbs that turn on automatically at the right time; nor will I speak of the dining room, or of the American-style meals that they say are well-seasoned, because, although I am loath to say it, I have not had the opportunity to seat myself at that table, although I have strolled through the gardens and galleries.

If I were to write a chronicle of the hotel, then I would linger some time speaking of the statues, the bronzes, and the oil paintings that decorate and entertain the initiated, because I am sure that some of the rich people who stay at the hotel don’t know the artistic value of a bronze Diana the Huntress, or of a painting signed by a famous artist. They know, and that’s enough, if the fish is well-prepared and if the roast beef is bloody. … But in spite of the fact that those artistic delicacies were made for them — those thousand and one trinkets, bibelots, paintings, terra-cottas that make up the decorations and features of the modern home, and especially the hotels — these rich people don’t understand them or like them.

Truly, rich people are not cultured people. The other night a Pullman passenger was walking barefoot through the car. That doesn’t prevent visitors [from] coming to the hotel or even filling it up sometimes, because to attract those fleeing the North’s intense cold, it just needs to be fashionable. And this is when Tampa becomes a very lively city. The establishments take advantage of the season, staying open until almost midnight; people come and go, and Franklin Street is very animated, resplendent with lights, the peanut roasters blow their sharp whistle like a mournful complaint, and even cabs are easily rented for turns around the hotel garden or along Tampa streets. Everything is movement and life: on the bridge in the afternoon the people stream from one end to the other, even the river is lively with cheerful young women rowing happily in small boats, while others lean on the railings to watch the silverfish jump, or watch a sailboat in the distance pierced by the sun, as it majestically sinks to achieve its life-giving mission in other latitudes.

At night, if one is not dancing, there is gambling, or conversation, or strolling, unless the eccentrics prefer to spend a few hours in lawn chairs, reading illustrated magazines or meditating upon the new book they are reading.

All by itself, the beautiful hotel enlivens the town — seemingly risen from a wasteland — for a long season. It’s pleasant to see the streets full of plush cloth coats, and the ladies’ faces rosy like peaches — and how elegantly they wear their hair, blond as corn silk, in twists under their bonnets.

Every night a Pullman car sleeps in the garden, and it will take you as far as New York, that crowded and proud city that grows every year in importance.

The hotel also has its own bathing pool in the river that runs alongside the garden, blessing anyone who wants to bathe in its crystalline cold water.

Everyone’s attention is fixated on that winter season so that when it is over, it seems that the animation and life also is over, and the city once again sinks into the wasteland, the desperate monotony of small-town life.

The greenhouse is one of the really nice parts of the hotel with its tropical plants, camphor trees, slender palms, and delicate violets, an infinite variety of pansies, carnations, geraniums a whole course in flower cultivation, carefully tended in flowerpots and earthenware jars. Those flowerpots and earthenware jars later will fulfill an important function on the tables and in strategic spots, perfuming the air of those large enclosed rooms.

Some Cubans, fleeing the heavy gunfire, the crashing cannons, and the tenacious persecution of them in the cities and towns, land like frightened birds in the hotel until after a few days they begin to recover and find their way (those who manage to do this); birds frightened from their nests awaiting the opportunity to rebuild and rewarm them.

So that nothing is lacking in this great hotel, it even has a complete pharmacy for the guests, perhaps foreseeing indigestion, swamp fevers, or any illness whatever, because Mr. Plant plans for Tampa to grow in importance so that his business can grow at the same time. So he is trying to construct walkways and theaters because the more beautiful he makes the magic city, the better.

The guests think very well of themselves, without realizing it; since they are out and about, they rent tilburies, phaetons, and other rentable carriages, and it seems like an entire city is on the streets. It’s fine to see them in their peregrinations, or in flocks, visiting the most important and admirable spots, the greenhouse, the natatorium, and the cigar factories.

And to think that hotel wasn’t built in Havana because he couldn’t do it!

Excerpted from Tampa: Impressions of an Emigrant by Wenceslao Gálvez y Delmonte, Translated by Noel M. Smith, Introduction and Notes by Noel M. Smith and Andrew T. Huse. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

To order a copy of the book using a special exclusive discount for 83 Degrees readers (applied upon checkout), visit the University Press of Florida and use discount code 83DEG, which includes free shipping. This offer is valid through December 16, 2020. 

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